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Switcher Hangout The place for switchers to discuss their new machines, and how to work with OS X. General support can be had here for newbie stuff, like "How do I restart my new iMac?" :)

Tutorial - Easy ways to navigate apps and windows on a Mac

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Member Since: Mar 01, 2010
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Navigate multiple application windows quicker and more easily on your Mac keyboard! Snow Leopard and Mountain Lion.

This article is best read from start to finish, though it is numbered for quick reference.


1. Application Switcher
2. Direct custom shortcuts to apps
3. Sticky Keys for easy one-fingered shortcuts
4. Hide Window
5. Hide Others
6. Show All
7. Minimise window
8. Maximise window
9. Restore hidden/minimised windows (keyboard Dock navigation)
10. Focus next or active window
11. Focus floating windows
12. Shuffling open windows, including minimised but not hidden ones (Exposé, Snow Leopard only)
13. Mountain Lion and Mission Control
14. VoiceOver
15. Application Windows
16. Finding minimised windows in Mountain Lion
17. Finding hidden windows in Mountain Lion
18. Spotlight

Some of the shortcuts given may be set up differently on your computer. You should be able to swap most shortcuts to whatever you want. The basic Mac ones are usually done in Keyboard Preferences, and you can make some custom ones there in the Applications section.

1. Application Switcher ⌘⇥

Application Switcher is the easiest way to swap from one app to another. See the Application Switcher tutorial. It's a bit more than just the 'command tab' shortcut, so do have a look! This should be something you use many times a day so make sure you know the extra aspects to it such as using the alt key.

2. Direct custom shortcuts to apps

Another simple way to swap from one app to another is to type it's launch shortcut if you've made one. These work just as well if the app is already open. You can read how to make shortcuts to do things like this in A higher state of mouselessness. If you have several windows open for the app you can then use Application Windows (F10), see section 15 below. For example I use ⌘FF to launch (or swap to) Firefox, ⌘MM for Mac Mail and so on.

MacAbleton shortcut convention

There's no specific convention because MacAbleton advocates Sticky Keys, which means you can type shortcuts one key at a time. It should be fairly obvious in the text what you are supposed to do if you aren't using Sticky Keys. The way shortcuts and sequences are written may vary from one tutorial to another. In general though, if it says 'cmd H', you don't need to type a capital H using the shift key, just a little h will do! Most shortcuts involve one or more modifiers plus a single letter, but some use two letters. These latter are invariably iKey shortcuts, and mouse users should probably type the letters quickly in sequence. Anything after that, such as arrow keys, the tab or enter key and so on, is most likely to be a sequence of events separate from the actual shortcut. So for example ⌃F3 ◀► ↩ is a shortcut ctrl F3 followed by arrow keys and then enter.
3. Sticky Keys ⇧⇧⇧⇧⇧ for easy one-finger shortcuts

To carry out multiple-key shortcut launchers with one finger you need the modifier (e.g. ⌘) to act on the next key you press, so you can press them one at a time. This is done by using Sticky Keys. It's great for several reasons. If you want to work one handed because your other arm is injured, just having a rest, or is controlling some MIDI hardware, pressing keys one at a time is far easier than performing finger gymnastics. Imagine pressing ⌘ H the normal way (simultaneously), right handed. You might hit the left ⌘ key with your thumb and reach out with your fingers for the H, but you can't see it because your hand is over it! And that's just two keys. It's so much easier to press the keys one at a time. You can even use Sticky Keys in normal typing, e.g. typing a capital letter at the start of a sentence or a question mark at the end and so on. If you have to type two modifiers at the same time it's not so much of a problem because they tend to be near each other, but with Sticky Keys they are ways to do even three key shortcuts one key at a time.

4. Hide window ⌘H

Cmd H. Hopefully you already knew this one! This works in most apps and is very handy. The window completely vanishes.

5. Hide Others ⌘⌥H

Command alt H, very handy to know. Note that if you use it, you might not be able to then hide the currently active one, for some strange reason. You can minimise it though.

6. Show All (hidden windows - custom shortcut)

Show All is an extremely useful one to know, but oddly there is no shortcut on a Mac. Fortunately there is a menu item, so as we say in Manchester 'job's a good 'un'. I gave up searching the internet and made one with iKey in two minutes. I simply used a command to launch Finder followed by one to select Show All in the menu, and used ⌥SA as a launcher. You might be best putting a 0.2 second delay after the first command. It works nicely - follow it with F7 to see all the open windows. Actually you can make a normal Mac shortcut for this in System Preferences in the usual way, but obviously not one in the single modifier plus two letters format as described above, which is easy to remember and unlikely to be already in use. However if you want to, just add it under All Applications. Also, the iKey way works even if there is no app to the front with Show All in it's menu, because it launches Finder first.

7. Minimise window ⌘M

Cmd M. Minimise (the yellow button) differs from Hide in that the window just gets a lot smaller and by default goes into the dock, rather than completely vanishing. It's a good idea to have minimised windows hide inside Dock icons rather than adding new icons, which quickly clutter up the dock and are hard to differentiate between. See Organise your Mac for a tutorial. If you do this, minimise acts very much like hide.

One difference between Hide and Minimise to Dock Icon is this: if you can't remember which apps have windows open, F7 will show* you thumbnails of minimised windows but not hidden ones. *Edit - Apple removed this feature after Snow Leopard.

8. Maximise window (custom shortcut)

There is no shortcut, as far as I know, for the green dot which maximises the screen. Crazy. However we have a solution!

This is a cool script I found here. You have to paste it into Script Editor and save it. I've uploaded it as a script if you prefer that. Download it and put it in:

Macintosh HD:Library:Scripts:

You can make a shortcut for it using iKey; see A higher state of mouseless, there's a scripts category in the Commands list. Now you have a shortcut to the green dot, which toggles maximised and custom window sizes. I use alt G for this.

9. Restore hidden/minimised window for a specific app (keyboard Dock navigation)

⌃F3 ◀► ↩

Suppose you have a few applications open and have hidden their windows, or minimised them into the dock icons. You now have a nice empty desktop. What's the easiest way to restore the window you are interested in? By easy I mean quickly, and preferably with one finger (no mouse).

Here's how; first you need to have things set up right on your Mac of course. Go into System Preferences: Keyboard: Keyboard and Text Input and make sure 'move focus to dock' is ticked.

Move focus to Dock

You can also enable Dock Hiding in the dock's preferences if you want to. This gives you a bit more real estate, but can be a bit annoying.

Back to our empty desktop then. Press ctrl, then F3 (or simultaneously if you haven't enabled Sticky Keys yet), and the Dock will pop up with one item highlighted. Use the arrow ◀► keys to get to the app you want to restore, then press return ↩ . The window you want will be restored to view. An even better way to select the app than arrow keys is to start typing the name of the app you want, and focus will jump to that app.

I have one app that is stubborn and will not restore this way when minimised (it will restore when hidden though). What I do is press the up arrow key and a small window appears, but is not in focus and will not restore if you press return ↩. I then press the up arrow key ▲ again once or twice until this small window is highlighted, and therefore in focus, and then the enter key will restore it. Edit - in Mountain Lion the up arrow brings up a popup dock menu which you can use to get to the window you want.

Highlighting an out of focus window on a mac with arrow keys, to restore it using the enter key

10. Focus active or next window ⌃F4

This is good for cycling through open windows, but it doesn't necessarily show them all. It won't show minimised windows, and occasionally won't show an open one even if it's not minimised.

11. Focus on 'floating' windows such as fonts ⌃F6

The little windows that pop up like the fonts one often aren't in focus. To bring them in focus (for keyboard navigation), press ctrl F6. This then allows you to select a font (or whatever) using tab and arrow keys.

12. Shuffling open windows, including minimised but not hidden ones (Exposé, Snow Leopard only)

F7 ◀► ↩ ...or... F7 ⇥ ▼ ↩

In this scenario you have several windows open, all on top of each other, or some might be open but minimised. You have MacAbleton open on top, but you want to get to some other app underneath, Live perhaps. What's the easiest way?

The most obvious way is to use ⌃F4. This is good for cycling through open windows, but it doesn't necessarily show them all. A good alternative is F7 followed by the arrow or tab keys. F7 should show you all the windows and the dock, like this:

F7 to show all application windows on a mac

You now have two main options:

1. Use arrow keys to navigate to the window you want, and then hit enter. This is ok, but you do have to figure out what each window actually is. And that can be very difficult if you have lots of them. If that's the case use the second option...
2. Use the tab key (shift tab to go backwards) to navigate dock items. This is my preferred method. Each dock item lights up as you tab over it. When you hit tab in this situation, you should jump only to the icons of open apps. If there's a window open for a particular application as you tab over it's dock icon, a roughly half-sized window will appear. The window isn't in focus so you can't restore it with the enter key. You have to mouse over it to focus it, and then click enter, or simply click on it. How to do it then, without having to use a mouse/trackpad or mouse keys? Just hit the down arrow key and you will see the outside of the window light up slightly as it becomes focused (blue or grey depending on your setup). Now hit ↩ (enter) and the window is restored.

Alternatively you can do the ctrl F3 technique described above for restoring hidden windows, but this doesn't show you the windows until you select an app. Also it doesn't select only open apps like F7 tab does.

13. Mountain Lion and Mission Control

Mission Control In Mountain Lion OS X

In Mountain Lion, Expose and Spaces are combined into Mission Control. Mission Control allows you to use several desktops, each with it's own background and apps open. Once set up, you can exit Mission Control and swap from one to another using ⌘◀►.

Selecting a window is done differently to the Expose F7 method described above. In Mission Control you cannot press F7 and then navigate the apps using arrow or tab keys as described above. This is a shame. Also it doesn't show minimised windows. However there is a solution of sorts to any problem. At first mine was to use KeyRemap Mouse Keys, and this is still what I would normally use. These can be switched on while Mission Control is showing. This is quite straightforward and second nature if you are familiar with the tutorial Lose the mouse! Use the 'non-stick' shortcut SD to activate KeyRemap Mouse Keys for short intervals like this, it saves a click.

14. Voice Over

However there is another solution, and this is to use the new feature called Voice Over. I'll do a tutorial for it eventually. You can sometimes use the 'VO keys' (ctrl alt, ⌃⌥) to select specific windows after pressing F7 but it's much better to activate VO and then press F7. It's ctrl alt down arrow (VO▼) to get to the main section with the windows (or try just down arrow ▼), and then ctrl alt shift down arrow (VO⇧▼) to focus on individual windows. Then use arrow keys ◀▼▲► to navigate to the window you want and VO⎵ (ctrl alt spacebar) to open it. Voice Over requires a fair bit of practice, but you can learn it bit by bit and I think it's worth it as you can do a lot with it in terms of keys-only computing.

The Mouse Keys option is actually the quickest unless you already have VO on, but there's not a lot in it. Either way it takes longer than it did in Snow Leopard.

Whichever method you choose, make sure the setting 'Group windows by application' is ticked, as this overcomes the visibility problem mentioned earlier regarding Expose in Snow Leopard. It pins a small icon of each app to each window as shown in the image above.

15. Application Windows F10

F10 Application Windows On Mountain Lion

This shows the current windows for an app. It's quite useful if you know how to use it.

You can skip from one app to the next using the ⇥ key, even if they are on different desktops.

If there is just one window, focus on it using up arrow ▲ and then hit return ↩. When the windows are in focus they have a blue or grey border that's not necessarily obvious unless you're looking for it.

If there are several windows for an app you can select one using up arrow ▲ if necessary, and then left right arrow ◀ ► keys followed by return ↩. At the bottom it shows recent files for the app, if you have them enabled for that app.

F10 doesn't show hidden or minimised windows for an app if you press it while on that app's page, but if you tab along to it then it does.

F10 only shows minimised files in miniature at the bottom. It seems to show recent files and open ones there, and they look different (see image above). So if you have two windows open but minimised, you might see four miniature ones at the bottom, two looking afferent to the other two. However F10 does not show minimised or recent files like this all the time. It works if the app is in the Menu bar or if you tab to the app after pressing F10.

16. Finding minimised windows in Mountain Lion

Minimised windows are harder to find than they were in Snow Leopard. They won't show with F7 (Mission Control). Application Switcher is the simplest way. Another way is ctrl F3 to select via the dock, as described earlier.

F10 (Application Windows) won't show minimised windows initially, unless the app is in the Menu Bar. If you press F10 and then use tab (⇥) to navigate to the app they will show as tiny windows at the bottom (along with recent files), as described above. The most recent should be on the left. You need to access them using the arrow keys followed by return or spacebar.

17. Finding hidden windows in Mountain Lion

The same methods that work for minimised windows work for hidden ones. Application Switcher works differently for hidden and minimised windows (see the separate tutorial).

18. Spotlight

Spotlight can be opened with ⌥⎵ (alt spacebar) or whatever you have it set to. This is another quick way of swapping from one app to another. If you want, say, Text Edit, just start typing te and everything beginning with te will appear, starting with apps if that's how Spotlight is set up. You can change the order different categories appear by dragging them in Spotlight's preferences. If you have more than one window open for the app you'll probably need to use F10 afterwards.
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Great tutorial! Handy refresher and reference.

Did anyone here know, that ⌥ symbol originated on the Apple Lisa? It represented a virtual keyboard "under" the keyboard, and the pull out reference card that was builtin to every keyboard on each Lisa: US, British, French, Spanish, Italian, etc...

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Frankly, I knew that stuff already. .... Not! (I just wanted to use "frankly" in a sentence.)

Lots of good tips there, to be frank.
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Cheers tomac and Geo! I've just got Mavericks. Not noticed anything different so far with regards to the above tutorial anyway. Actually the F stands for Funk. My real name is Funk N. Furter, although I do get called Fran a lot!

Ease ★ Efficiency ★ Ergonomics ★ Knowledge
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Originally Posted by f.furter View Post
My real name is Funk N. Furter, although I do get called Fran a lot!
I so hope that's true. If it is, it's up there as one of the best names ever. Nicely pulled together info too

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Yes of course it's true Ok, Just the Fran bit. My middle name is Ken so it's Fran Ken Cotton, which of course sounds like Franken Cotton. The rest I owe to the Rocky Horror show (Frank N. Furter from the planet Transexual) and also Daft Punk (Da Funk). My music name is Kenny Da Funk and my user name on the Ableton forum is Funk N. Furter.

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I've updated some of the tutorial now, partly just to clarify a few things better. The updated version is here
Easy ways to navigate apps and windows in Snow Leopard, Mountain Lion and Mavericks
In particular I've clarified section 15 on "Application windows" after testing it in Mavericks.

Ease ★ Efficiency ★ Ergonomics ★ Knowledge
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